Babylon (Review) – captivating and quintessentially Chazelle


Babylon arrives in cinemas nationwide on January 20th.

The word Babylon has appeared throughout literature, but a common dictionary definition describes a place of great luxury but also of vice. That definition seems crystal clear when applied to Damien Chazelle’s film of the same name. Here we have a film rich with the stylish craftsmanship that has personified Chazelle’s work since Whiplash. Yet there is also a dark underbelly to his story that is as compelling as it is soul-crushing.

Set in the late 1920s, as the silent film era was morphing into the age of talkies, Manuel Torres (Diego Calva) finds himself at a lavish party in Hollywood, where he declares his desire to be part of something bigger; the filmmaking business. Also in attendance is Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a brash New Jersey woman who has already decided she is the next big star. As the two set off to achieve their desires, they are met with the full behemoth that is the ‘business’, finding themselves challenged in a filmmaking world that is rapidly changing just as they’ve arrived.

Chazelle has always had an acute interest in the pursuit of dreams and the things people are willing to do to achieve them. Where his previous films were character dramas focusing on one or two individuals at a time, Babylon is his first ensemble feature. The ambition behind this project has created something that is, at times, overstuffed. Yet it retains a powerful thematic core that is both captivating and quintessentially Chazelle.

As Nellie and Manuel navigate the Hollywood scene through acting and production, they find that the glitz, glamour and spectacle that drew them in is a veil for a messy present and a merciless future. Chaos reigns from the moment the two arrive at the gates of Babylon and find themselves in the middle of a drug-fuelled scene of gluttonous celebration. The use of long takes and intense close-ups highlights both the scale and the toll of such unfiltered euphoria. Justin Hurwitz’s magnificently wild score enhances this baffling but exciting world. Yet Manuel and Nellie are moths to the flame of success, and before long, they find themselves the latest rising stars.

Diego Calva plays Manny Torres, and Margot Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

Linus Sandgren’s dazzling cinematography is matched only by the production design. The scale of the set pieces is presented in such a way as to highlight their majesty but also the ugliness behind the curtain. It’s appropriate as Nellie and Manuel’s recently obtained stardoms are already threatened as time and technological advancements work against them. Here the Hollywood machine keeps moving as it sheds those it no longer needs. Chazelle’s choice to make this an ensemble feature demonstrates how far-ranging that idea is.

Where Nellie and Manuel, recent additions to Babylon, find themselves struggling between what they want and who they are, even established names are not safe. Brad Pitt plays Hollywood legend Jack Conrad, a man whose fame is beginning to wither as the transition to talking pictures starts to treat silent stars like him as relics. Babylon deftly utilises sound to convey the gravity of this idea. In a world where everyone is making noise, the growing silence speaks volumes, conveying just how unforgiving the industry can be.

Kaia Gerber plays Starlet, and Li Jun Li plays Lady Fay Zhu in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

The direction from Chazelle articulately captures the gargantuan beast that his characters are trying to tame. When characters receive acceptance and validation for their efforts, there is an ecstatic thrill to its boisterous nature. Yet, as movies start to talk and the conglomerate elite start to become less libertine, the growing anxiety overshadows the joy in ways that are harrowing. One of the film’s most notable scenes is Nellie performing in her first talking picture. Here countless things go wrong, leading to numerous takes while generating a scene of such unbelievable stress and anger that one can only laugh; otherwise, one would cry.

Babylon is a story about people who want to be stars, become stars, and are ultimately reduced to stardust. It is an experience that is both kinetically charged and darkly solemn once the high of its spectacle wears off. That makes it an arresting movie with a surprising emotional punch. Chazelle is perhaps overambitious here, as the three-hour runtime does start to feel meandering once Tobey Maguire’s character is introduced about two-thirds of the way in. The longevity of the scenes on set and the undisciplined nightlife behind the scenes are ae a double-edged sword, as they embolden the themes through the sheer rambunctiousness of the chaos on screen, but this can sometimes feel overwhelming. There is a balance between style and substance that Chazelle doesn’t manage to achieve as well as he has done in the past. As a result, Babylon won’t work for everyone watching.

However, for this reviewer, Babylon is a powerful and fascinating film with highs and lows that provide a rich commentary on how a creatives power is never permanent and is always in service to the larger collective of the art form. It is a truth that is both scary and bittersweet. Babylon channels awe-inspiring production design with confident direction, a sensational score, and some powerhouse performances, especially in Calva and Robbie, to generate a surreal yet oddly sobering spectacle. If La La Land is about achieving your dreams, then Babylon is about the stark realisation that dreams don’t always last.

  • Babylon

United States | 3hr 9mins | 2022

Babylon is a powerful and fascinating film with highs and lows that provide a rich commentary on how a creatives power is never permanent and is always in service to the larger collective of the art form. It is a truth that is both scary and bittersweet.

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